The Great American Road Trip: Badlands & Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone & Grand Tetons

The Great American Road Trip: Badlands & Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone & Grand Tetons


// June 29th Sioux Falls → Badlands National Park //

Needless to say, I slept terribly in the cold and decided at 4:30am I should take matters into my own hands and walked over to the bathhouse to try to get some heat from a warm shower. Sadly, I picked the shower with only a trickle of water, so although it was hot, I had to strategically rotate around in order to get my entire body warm. Someone came into the stall next to me and, of course, her shower had a full blast of water.

I started to regain feeling in my hands and toes and the sun eventually rose to warm the tent up, just as it was time to pack it all up. This town miraculously had a Walmart, so we bought some groceries and a warm blanket. We killed time in Mitchell at the infamous Corn Palace, which really isn’t made entirely of corn, only the front facade. Finally with food and warmth, we hit the road again for more rolling plains and fields until the land got drier and mounds of dirt pointed through the green grass. We pulled into Badlands National Park in the afternoon with dark ominous clouds threatening rain. The canyons and spikes were a light tan dirt color, and looked like the entrance to some fictional Lord of the Rings Mordor type environment where there most certainly was a Dark Lord ruling over the barren land. The spikes looked kind of pretty, or at least interesting from a distance, but when we got out of the car for a walk up close to the formations, they simply looked like run of the mill crusty dirt mounds.

Even if they weren’t the prettiest dirt mounds, they were fun to climb on, so instead of going on a lengthy hike, we climbed up and down the mini mountains, taking our jackets on and off depending on which part of the cloud passed overhead. We were pretty tired from the day and lack of sleep, so we drove down to our campsite and set up the tent. The site was in the middle of the plains, with the spiky mountains corralling us in from a distance. Fellow campers set up their tents, including a couple from Canada road tripping by motorcycle, and a family from Larchmont, NY grilling while their kids played tag with other camping families. The atmosphere was mellow and quiet as we watched the sunset from the comfort of the tent, with the flap open all the way to maximize the view of the mountains.

Byron cracked open a can of sardines while I enjoyed Spaghettios, wanting nothing to do with the little fish. We played cards again until it got too dark and bundled up in our new Walmart blanket, trying to prepare for another cold night.

// June 30th Badlands → West Yellowstone, WY //

I still woke up cold, but not as bad as the night before without the blanket. Today was our longest day of driving, around 11 hours, so we didn’t take long packing up the tent and heading on out on the small highway–the mountains in the rearview mirror and open plains in front. It was miles until we reached true civilization in Rapid City, with housing developments, schools, and a Walmart, which was a stark contrast to the open fields and run down farms. We drove up steep hills, and plunged back down into a quaint downtown valley where all the hotels were gathered below Mount Rushmore. I could see the little stone faces as we pulled into the Mount Rushmore parking lot and walked through the flags to the base of the monument. It was just as cool as I expected and definitely did not disappoint. The most impressive part of it to me was Teddy Roosevelt’s glasses. The way the artist was able to carve the stone created an illusion that the stone figure was wearing wire rimmed glasses–it was incredible. Also, back when they made the sculpture, the tools and equipment they had were primitive compared to the tools of today.

We walked along the path through the evergreens and pines in the peaceful forest surrounding the monument, and it made us nostalgic for New Hampshire hikes when we lived back East. We talked about how we hoped someday we could take our families here, and to all the places we’d seen along our road trip. Since we still had a whole day of driving left, we hopped back in the car, back down through the valley and Rapid City, past rolling plains and rural farm towns and on to Bozeman Montana. As soon as we drove down the main street and saw the cute collegetown shops and restaurants, we wished we were spending the night here instead. It reminded me a lot of Flagstaff, another college town, with all the breweries and craft beer scene and people sitting out at tables enjoying the afternoon sun. We parked and walked along the main street and had the most delicious burgers and beer. I’m sure they would’ve been phenomenal on any other night but I especially enjoyed every juicy delicious bite after having nonstop meals of canned food for the past few days.

We headed back to the car and drove the last hour on one of the most beautiful roads of the trip yet. The route from Bozeman to West Yellowstone takes you past lush green fields that run up to rocky banks that contain a deep blue river that meanders through evergreen trees underneath the bases of mountains. The road was windy and every turn had a breathtaking view of pure, stunning wilderness. We arrived in West Yellowstone and checked into the Madison Lodge, an establishment that seems frozen in time from the early 1900s with old iron stoves, wooden everything, and hunted animals hanging on the walls. The shared room had three beds, and a charming rustic feel–maybe a bit tired, but clean, at least. My roommate turned out to also be named Erin, but she was crazy–I think in a good way. She was bicycling by herself and talked about all the ditches and places she’d slept outside on her own, even in “griz” land. She told one story about being on the road and it started getting dark, so she found a rock ledge on the side of the road to sleep under. A few hours later she realized she had stopped right in the middle of coyote land and heard them all night, only a few meters away. She was entertaining to say the least. I cuddled up under the cozy quilted bed after a steaming hot shower and slept extremely well.

// July 1st West Yellowstone, WY → Jackson Hole, WY //

Not only did I sleep better than I had all week, but the hostel also had vouchers for free breakfast at the cafe next door. I don’t think a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich has ever tasted so heavenly.

We got in line with all the other cars entering Yellowstone and proudly waved our National Parks Pass to gain entrance into the park. Immediately, we were surrounded by evergreens flanking the road and glimpses of mountains in the distance. The brochure from the Ranger Station contained at least ten bolded warnings about bear attacks. There were stickers exclaiming the danger, pamphlets explaining how to use bear spray (NOT a repellant, as some people mistakenly thought), and flash cards with the appropriate movements to take in the event of a bear encounter. When I finished reading all the material, I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to play dead with the “curious” bear or get big with the “interested” bear. I just prayed I wouldn’t see any type of bear.

In the distance, wisps of steam floated above the treeline and into the sky, almost as if something was on fire down below. As we got closer, the puffs grew thicker until we could spot the source–large yellow and white crusted pits of water that gurgled and belched great billows of steam. We pulled over and walked along the boardwalk through the swampy pits, mindful of the signs that described the horrible suffering and death you’d experience if you were to stray from the boardwalk into the 212 degree pools. The geothermal activity looked unearthly and foreign and the bright blue color of the pools surrounded by crusty neon orange dirt was unlike any other color found in nature. The blackened trees scattered around the marshy area looked like they had survived a nuclear bombing, and were only a few moments from death themselves. It was fascinating, but maybe a bit unnerving too.

We continued down the road, along with the hundreds of other tourists enjoying this Independence Day weekend, and stopped at the Grand Prismatic Spring, which ended up being my favorite stop at the park. We walked along a trail that continued over a wooden bridge over a wide stream, with a sheet of steaming water spilling over from the river bank above. The walkway brought us to the top of the bank where there was an open expanse of gurgling orange gooey land, interrupted by electric blue pools of water. One of these pools was the size of an Olympic swimming pool, and the steam that drifted from the top of the liquid was also a neon blue color. It looked like a mad scientist’s dream.

Further down the road was Old Faithful, where we saw crowds of people gathered alongside a dirt mound, staring intently at the gaping hole at the top. Given the size of the crowd, we knew we must have arrived close to the hour and a half mark that the geyser spews hot liquid and steam. I guess it’s slowed down a bit over the years and is a bit less predictable, so even fifteen minutes after the expected eruption time, Old Faithful was quietl, except for a few wimpy spits that got the whole crowd excited enough to take out their selfie sticks prematurely. Finally, the little splashes turned into a mighty stream of steamy water that sprayed dozens of feet high in a glorious display of American iconography. It continued for at least five minutes, but we carried on to West Thumb Lake and Grant Village to hike on the Lake Overlook trail.

After all the bear warnings, we felt hopelessly inadequately prepared to face a grizzly (gosh, how did we possibly not pack the bear spray??) and did our best to get awkwardly close to the couple in front of us for safety in numbers. We also talked about absolutely nothing at an irritating volume just to make sure any bears out there were aware of our presence. It wa a relief to get to the top and have a high vantage viewing point of the surrounding area (and potentially lurking wildlife). The lake was beautiful and extending out of sight to the base of the snow capped mountains in the distance. Our descent back to the car was a fast paced, equally as loud experience until we got back to the car and continued on to the Continental Divide. My dad has an old photo of himself during his cross-country bicycle trip, standing next to one of the Continental Divide signs. I felt a bit like I was following in his adventurous footsteps as I posed next to the wooden sign with lily pads and evergreens in the background.

At the point that Yellowstone National Park ends in the south, Grand Teton National Park begins, and as soon as we entered into our second park of the day, the crowds dwindled. The road into the park offered glimpses of the massive steep mountains that made up the Grand Tetons. It was breathtaking to get closer and closer to them to feel the enormity of them and imagine what it was like in the entirely different snowy climate at the top. We made our way along Jackson Lake and passed by signs for kayaking on the lake at Signal Mountain Lodge. With the fear of bears fresh in our minds, we decided that paddling around a sparkling blue lake with the mountains in view was much preferred to crawling through bushes and trees fearing getting mauled, only to be rewarded with a quick glimpse of the mountains at the top. It was an easy decision and we were grateful to snag the last two person kayak. This ended up being my favorite moment from the whole road trip and there was nowhere else in the world I would rather be than floating around that tranquil lake, sunshine warming my back with a view of the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen. I couldn’t stop looking at them, as if they’d disappear suddenly and I would be left without them. I hoped I could burn that image into my mind and never forget the moment.

After taking photos to preserve the moment and trying hopelessly to coordinate our paddling technique, we turned in the kayak and bought two Grand Teton Brewing Company beers to enjoy out in an open plain. The label on my bottle was an identical image of the peaks that loomed ahead of me. I took a moment to appreciate how awesome the day had been, but also to decide that despite all the hype that Yellowstone and Old Faithful get, I enjoyed myself much more in the lesser known Grand Teton National Park. Maybe it was because I didn’t know what to expect, or maybe it was because it truly is incredible, but Grand Tetons is something not to miss.

We left the park in the late afternoon sun and drove around stopping here and there for the beautiful views, feeling so in awe of our surrounds. On our way to Jackson Hole, we drove through the town of Moose. Along the narrow road a line of cars were stopped on the side of the road, preventing anyone from passing by. We got out to see what all the fuss was about and were shocked to see an actual moose, wading through the shallow stream only thirty feet away. Guess that’s how the town got it’s name.

In Teton Village, or Jackson Hole (still not sure the difference), we checked into our hostel, which was really more of a rundown ski lodge. The “kitchen” was a laundry room with two rusted hot plates placed on top of a wobbly card table. The four person shared room had wood paneling on every surface and was set up so that your head was directly next to your roommate’s smelly toes. It wasn’t ideal, so we spent as little time as possible in the room and headed out to the free gondola that took guests up the mountain to the top, right to the front door of their fancy restaurant. Instead of dining, we took in the view of the entire town, now tiny like a miniature toy set, and played in the snow that covered the ground. We hadn’t felt snow in years, so we had a proper snowball fight while the sun went down and the temperature dropped.

At least the couple that was sharing the room with us were nice and we swapped stories of camping and road tripping. I didn’t know whether to think they were super prepared or just suckers for bringing their bear spray, but I hoped they wouldn’t have to use it during their trip.

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